This is going to be a double feature. Don’t you feel special? [Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Part of the reason I’m doing a simultaneous review of CONTRACTED and STARRY EYES is because both were put out on Netflix around the same time and both have somewhat similar progression of pretty girls deteriorating. So they kind of feel like the same kind of movie, although they each stand out in different ways.
I’ll start with CONTRACTED, because it’s the weaker movie of the two, although not for lack of talent by the main actress, Najarra Townsend. With her delicate brunette features and prominent cheekbones, she reminds me a lot of Rooney Mara, but she’s less introspective and more emotionally available to the audience (no dig against Mara, who I actually love in movies, just different acting style).
Townsend is easily the best part of an otherwise meh cast, and she makes the best of what seems like a somewhat amateur film. She and the gross-out effects make CONTRACTED worth a watch if you get the opportunity. Neflix pulled the film from its line-up, and I miss it already.
If AFFLICTED was a found-footage, up-close-and-personal look at developing vampirism, CONTRACTED is a standard film with an up-close-and-personal look at being infected by a zombie virus – in this case, a necrotic STD. The sequel made an attempt to explain the context of the virus, but the more horror is explained, sometimes the less you care. All that really matters is that a seriously unethical coroner appeared to have had sex with a dead person, then roofied Townsend’s already drunk character to have sex with her, and through that, she contracted the virus. Then everything already fraying in her life begins to completely fall apart in disgusting, spectacular fashion.
CONTRACTED went through a bit of controversy with the Netflix description of the night Samantha contracted the virus as a “one-night stand,” when the fact she was staggering drunk and then given a date-rape drug makes it pretty clear she’s raped. I mean, just look at the tagline on the poster image – implies the description was deliberate on the part of the studio, not a Neflix writer’s error. It doesn’t matter one bit that she gained a little consciousness in the middle of the act and seems to derive some pleasure from the sex, even as she’s telling him they should stop – although it seems like everyone seems to think that makes it okay, and her fault?
The sequel brings up the fact it was rape almost as an apology for the fact no one in the first movie seemed to realize that it was, including Sam, who never framed it as assault even when her lesbian lover accused her of having sex with a man. It’s tone-deaf, for sure, but a hell of a representation of why rape culture still needs to be discussed. (And CONTRACTED wasn’t the only one that seemed to miss the tonal mark with sexual assault.) It would have been one thing if it was clear either from the directorial perspective or someone’s perspective in the movie that what happened was rape, while everyone else didn’t get it, but I never got any impression that anyone was aware it was rape and not a one-night stand mistake.
Let’s move forward from that, though, to the post-contracted phase, which is when the movie and Townsend really start to shine, even though it’s kind of also where what little logic the movie has dissolves into so much goo.
The movie does amazing with the slow burn of the gross-out. It evolves little by little, although the movie takes place in less than three days. The early symptoms are relatively minor, but troubling enough to go to a clinic to test for an STD. She won’t get results back for a while, which is no help to her whatsoever. She’s given some cream for her genital rash and told the massive gout of blood out of her vagina is her period, even though it looks more like a miscarriage. At this point, I can see her wanting to hold her fragile life together and insist nothing’s wrong. I understand denial.
But when she vomits blood, I think that’s about time to go to the hospital, don’t you? She tries, but then somehow her boss ropes her into taking a shift, and instead of saying “No, dude, I’m vomiting blood,” she agrees and shows up looking thoroughly sick, with something that looks at least like raging pink eye, with another eye that’s jaundiced. And somehow, upon looking at her, her boss thinks, “That’s the kind of person I want serving people food.” He really only has himself to blame with that one.
And I know that when my daughter starts looking like an extra in a contagion film, my first thought is “Guess she’s gone back to drugs.” Sam’s bleeding, pussing, and rotting all over the place, and her mother brings a psychiatrist home to talk to her. Townsend’s so ugly-beautiful at this point, but everyone’s still completely clueless, and there’s a point at which it becomes ridiculous.
It’s hard to describe how perfect the gross-out effects are in this movie, though, how carefully spaced out they are, because the rest of the shit going on isn’t doing much to help – kind of like her friends and her indifferent lover, who’s clearly been looking to get off the train for a while, yet latches on to Sam having sex with a man as the final straw. Her body falling apart and her life in ruins, Sam officially jumps onto the crazy-train.
The best montage happens at this point – a pre-zombie girl dolling herself up for comfort sex that sounds like an extremely bad idea and may or may not be a symptom. And much blood and yuck was had.
It’s a silly and disgustingly beautiful movie, worth it for the effects and Townsend alone if you can stomach a wince-worthy script and uneven acting from the rest.
Which brings us to STARRY EYES. At its core, a completely different story – lovely but insecure young woman struggles to make it as an actress in LA, longing for her big break…oh, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before.
The movie opens on her pinching and prodding at her stomach, checking her butt, agonizing over how thin her hair has become. She works at a breastaurant to make ends meet, but she considers it beneath her. She has a supportive friend in her roommate (Amanda Fuller, one of my favorites), but her roommate has other starving artist friends who Sarah clearly thinks are insufferable – especially Erin, who appears to enjoy a touch more success and suffer less neurosis than Sarah, but who’s passive-aggressive in her superiority and played by the wonderful Fabianne Therese. Already, even though STARRY EYES feels like just as much of an indie film, the cast surpasses that of CONTRACTED. There are some undeveloped characters, but no bad actors.
And because there are no bad actors, Alex Essoe doesn’t have to carry the movie on her own shoulders the whole time. But she could. She brings layers to Sarah that most middle-of-the-road horror movies don’t even think about, and it shows. Every time I watch this movie, I read something a little different from her.
It would have been too easy to just make us hate Sarah or just make us love her, but Essoe does a really good job of making us empathize, even when we think she’s being as much of a bitch as Erin under the facade of the nice girl. She has a drive, a yearning for success and fame, and on that level we understand her – but there’s an ugliness underneath it, a desperation, an emptiness, that seems to be kept from the surface by the thinnest of paper. Ambition can be an amazing impetus, but there’s a fine line between good ambition and ambition gone bad. When you don’t have a solid acceptance of who you are as a foundation, ambition that doesn’t reach constant fruition risks turning back on its host, punishing internally as well as externally.
Ultimately, just like Astraeus Pictures’ film SILVER SCREAM, for which Sarah auditions, is supposed to be about the dark side of the ambition for fame, STARRY EYES brings that ugly underbelly up for everyone to see, and it does so with a great deal of self-awareness. It’s not quite meta-horror, because it’s a horror movie about movies rather than a horror movie about horror movies, but it flirts with that subgenre here and there.
We get a glimpse behind Sarah’s facade at the opening of the movie, but the magic really happens at the first audition for SILVER SCREAM, where the bland, creepy casting directors make their move to find something special in one of the girls trying out for their movies in the hopes of that big break. Sarah does a decent but indistinguishable audition. When the casting directors don’t seem all that interested, she reacts in a disproportionately frustrated way, with all of her anger directed at herself, throwing what amounts to a self-hating tantrum in the girls’ bathroom.
It’s a cumulative frustration, I know, but it’s still just one audition, and she puts so much pressure on herself to achieve, then blames herself entirely for being inadequate. She’s a miserable person, with that ugliness under her surface that’s more self-hating than she knows. Everything she hates about her roommate’s friends are things she’s afraid of in herself, a hallmark of narcissism – mediocre, talentless, invisible, poor, and she doesn’t even see how they’re so much happier than her because it’s more about the art for them than the fame. She’s afraid she’s just another one, and she’s desperate for some kind of external validation that she’s got something to offer, that she’s the talented one, that she’s the star. Whenever she doesn’t get that validation, she feels she has to punish herself. (It’s so common in perfectionism to motivate by punishment, but it doesn’t actually work.)
And here’s where it really connects with me, even though I’m not sure whether it’s the same thing. The reason why Sarah’s hair is so thin is because when she’s upset with herself, she pulls it and whole chunks get pulled out and drape between her fingers. I have trichotillomania myself, but I’m not certain whether what Sarah’s doing is supposed to be trich, or whether it’s self-harm punishment. There’s a certain drama to seeing full chunks of hair in a woman’s hand, but most trichsters pull one or a few hairs at a time. The bald spots we get add up over time. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little bit of both? Like, maybe they read about pulling out hair as a symptom of anxiety and depression and thought it meant chunks rather than one by one? Maybe they just wanted hers to be so extreme in comparison with the fastidiousness of most trichsters. Sometimes I watch depictions of hair-pulling disorders in the media (CSI:NY, Criminal Minds, and The Blacklist had other notable depictions), I wonder if that’s really how the world sees people like me, if that’s what I look like to other people when I’m pulling. It’s weird.
Anyway, right after Sarah’s through throwing her tantrum, she leaves the bathroom stall and walks straight into one of the casting directors, the incredibly disturbing Maria Olsen, who tells Sarah she finally has their interest. Thus begins a short series of auditions that go from red flags to fire alarms, designed to weed out only the most desperate and hungry of the bunch. It’s not exactly talent they’re looking for, which is good, because talent is in abundant supply, and talent isn’t even what Sarah wants – she wants acclaim for her talent, which is what Astraeus Pictures wants to give her…if she gives a little of herself in return.
Like CONTRACTED, there’s a tonal problem in the way the movie addresses the most controversial part of the movie, which I saw in a completely new light after the Weinstein scandal. This isn’t the first time the sleazy, boys’-club mentality of the Hollywood movers and shakers has been depicted in a horror movie – Scream 3 brought it up first. It’s no surprise that men in power use that power to get what they want, and I don’t doubt it’s still happening today, even with Weinstein disgraced. Women talk about it years later, if ever, which means what’s happening now won’t even come up until long after the fact. There’s still a few hurdles women have to go through to get somewhere, and the men making the rules and calling the shots are more than willing to take advantage of women’s desperation, to pluck the fruits of women’s ambition in a way that women (mostly) can’t achieve in the same positions.
So while characters in the film are stunned and derisive when they discover Sarah blew a producer for a “break-out” role in a horror film from a struggling production studio, their condemnation is almost completely on Sarah, and the audience is clearly supposed to agree. Extorting sexual favors for roles simply isn’t done anymore, and any self-respecting woman won’t hold for that, right? Well, reality is a tad more complicated. Sure, Sarah could have just walked away, and yes, she has a massively inflated, narcissistic ego to make up for her crippling insecurities, but the entertainment business is often one in which women do have to walk away if they don’t play ball, and that’s not right, either. Because male ambition is expected and encouraged, but female ambition is unseemly and seedy and suspect, and women need to do more to be seen as equally competent. It’s a troubling, tangled issue, this implicit condemnation more for Sarah than for the shady relic producer.
Astraeus Pictures are more than just shady, bringing on a bit of the ROSEMARY’S BABY vibe, and with the sacrifice placed upon the woman yet again. Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, the price for fame. You just have to die slowly and horribly and destroy everything around you. Sarah’s desire for fame and fortune is placed in the context of many early film starlets of the black-and-white era, for good reason. Once you learn some of their stories, you find that’s not much of an exaggeration. And if the SILVER SCREAM is a condemnation of naked ambition, I’m not sure whether STARRY EYES ever quite reaches a critique of the exploitation of that naked ambition so much as adds its voice into condemning the ambition itself.
This is point where STARRY EYES most closely parallels CONTRACTED, making use of Essoe’s thin frame and willingness to put maggots in her mouth (can’t fault a girl for her commitment to the role). Sarah gradually sheds her masks to expose the ugliness within, all inhibitions released, and her true feelings towards her roommate (with a tinge of envy and sexual attraction, am I reading that right?) and her roommates’ friends coming out of the woodwork. The process is faster than in CONTRACTED because it takes up less of the film, but it still follows the ‘pretty girl gone dead’ arc that’s truly fascinating to watch, culminating in a much less logic-twisted, blood-soaked ending.
It’s a more complete, complex, thoughtful film than CONTRACTED, but both are definitely worth the watch for fans of nitty-gritty, intimate body horror.